The international brouhaha over Donald Trump’s conversation with Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-wen has a lot of nuances and undertones. But one that is not getting a lot of attention in the U.S. is the nature of the current Taiwanese government — formally known the Republic of China on Taiwan, in a term that dates back to the Chinese Civil War — and the ways in which it heightens mainland China’s sensitivity toward any departure from the rigid, formulaic protocol for relations between Washington and Taipei.
Tsai is just the second Taiwanese president to represent the Democratic Progressive Party. Though in conventional terms a center-left political party known for commitments to environmentalism and human rights, the DPP’s deep roots are in the Taiwanese resistance to the takeover of the island by the Nationalist Chinese government of Chiang Kai-shek in the years prior to the communist revolution. Chiang and his Kuomintang Party consolidated authoritarian control of Taiwan, forming a Chinese government in exile there as they were in the process of losing the civil war on the mainland to Mao Tse-tung and his Communist army. Kuomintang forces killed tens of thousands of Taiwanese civilians who tried to resist the takeover, and imprisoned many more. An especially bloody massacre occurred in Taipei in 1947 — two years prior to Mao’s final victory — and is known today as the “Two-Two-Eight Incident” (referring to the February 28 date). The legitimization of an anti-Kuomintang opposition and the founding of the DPP did not occur until 1986.
Chiang’s one-party Kuomintang government became a global anti-communist rallying point for decades. But ironically, once Chiang was gone and the relationship with the People’s Republic of China became the fulcrum of Taiwanese politics, the “One China” fiction the Kuomintang shared with the Communist leaders in Beijing became a point of reconciliation, pointing to an eventual, if distant, reunification. It’s the DPP’s hostility to Beijing, and its sometimes-veiled but fundamental commitment to Taiwanese independence, that’s become the existential Taiwanese threat the PRC cannot tolerate.
Under the first DPP president, Chen Shui-bian, his party’s constant flirtation with a formal declaration of independence produced incessant saber-rattling from the mainland. The possibility of a PRC invasion of the island became real enough to provoke occasional warnings from Washington against aggression.
“Cross-straits” tensions abated significantly when the Kuomintang returned to power in 2008 under Ma Ying-jeou. Tsai’s election in January of this year (along with a first-ever DPP majority in Taiwan’s legislature) did not set off too many alarms in Beijing, mainly because the DPP campaigned on domestic issues rather than any movement toward independence. The new government has been careful to not provoke Beijing. It seemed that the PRC might become reconciled to periodic DPP rule as part of a “new normal.” Then the Tsai–Trump call happened, and all bets are off.
You don’t have to be a Trump-hater to surmise that the president-elect probably did not have a full understanding of all these nuances when he agreed to take the call from Taipei. But some of the people in his circle almost certainly knew he was juggling dynamite, and encouraged it, as the Washington Post reports:
Some of the GOP’s most ardent Taiwan proponents are playing active roles in Trump’s transition team, and others in the conservative foreign policy community see a historic opportunity to reset relations with Taiwan and reposition it as a more strategic ally in East Asia.
Several leading members of Trump’s transition team are considered hawkish on China and friendly toward Taiwan, including incoming chief of staff Reince Priebus.
Indeed, advisers explicitly warned last month that relations with China were in for a shake-up.
Well, a shake-up is what they got, even before Trump took office. And aside from all the other red-hot potential conflicts a Trump administration may have with China on the trade and commercial fronts, the U.S. may now be entering a period when forces in both Taipei and Washington will be testing the outer limits of Beijing’s tolerance for Taiwanese independence of action. It’s one of many scary things to watch carefully as long as the Trump Era endures.